Dodgers: The Most Pivotal Part of the Dodgers 2018 Season

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 01: Ross Stripling #68 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on July 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 01: Ross Stripling #68 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Colorado Rockies at Dodger Stadium on July 1, 2018 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images) /

At the beginning of the 2018 season, the Dodgers spent the majority of their time trying to tread water and linger around .500 amidst poor performances and a host of injuries. Ever since then, they’ve been one of the best teams in baseball, going 17-9 in the month of June after going 10-4 to end May, en route to greatly reducing their deficit in the National League West. Things aren’t about to get any easier.

(As an aside at the top, the Dodgers just beat Pittsburgh 17-1 in game one, which isn’t overly relevant here, but should be noted. Also, we’re all excited LeBron is coming to LA. But don’t lose sight of what the Dodgers are doing!)

There are 11 games remaining for the Dodgers before the All-Star Break, seven of which will come against teams under .500. Los Angeles gets the Pirates at home for three games and then four in San Diego against the Padres. The other six games will come against the Angels, three at Dodger Stadium and three at Angel Stadium.

This should be a beneficial portion of the schedule for the Dodgers, enabling them to pad their win totals leading up to the mid-summer classic. After that, however, things get much more difficult. As was noted on a recent Dodgers’ broadcast, the schedule after the All-Star Break was expected to be mild, to say the least.

Several of their opponents were expected to be at the bottom of their division, or middle of the pack, at best. There are some opponents that everyone knew would be good, and would challenge the Dodgers, like the reigning World Champion Houston Astros. Others, however, like the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, both of whom are teams Los Angeles will see back to back on the road, have some of the better teams in baseball.

Both of those squads weren’t expected to be competitive until a couple years from now, after the youth in the organization had some time to mature. But no, the 2018 National League East has shaped up a little bit more like the 2011 National League East, with Atlanta and Philadelphia swapping places, with Washington trailing, then New York and Miami (Florida).

So what are the Dodgers going to do to navigate this treacherous stretch?

The simple answer is to keep doing what they’ve been doing, but baseball is never simple. Over the month of June, the Dodgers scored 140 runs, which is sixth in baseball over that stretch. They did it in several different ways, but there are two ways that stick out: walks and home runs.

Los Angeles drew 106 walks in June, third to Cincinnati and Texas. That shows patience and the ability to wait out pitchers until there’s something that they like; or, if nothing ever comes, earn a free pass to first base. Everyone knows how walks work, and they know they’re valuable.

They’re also easier than the next stat I’m going to mention. Firstly, I know it is entirely absurd for me, only a writer and not a professional baseball player, to say that anything on the Major League level is ever easy. With that said, I think we can all agree that walks are easier to attain than home runs, and the Dodgers have been doing both of those things very well.

The Dodgers launched 55 home runs in June, and that number is 11 more than the power-hitting Yankees and good for first place. That is a strikingly high number. Dodger Stadium is very middle-of-the-pack when it comes to players hitting home runs there.

Using ESPN’s MLB Park Factors, we’re going to dissect how teams, on average, tend to perform in both walks and home runs in the stadiums that Los Angeles will be at over the challenging three-week post-All Star Break.

(I wrote an article that discussed the Dodgers’ success away from Chavez that also mentions park factors. It can be found here.)

It’s hard for me to say that certain ballparks yield more walks than others. ESPN’s Park Factors, though, says that there can be a significant difference. But because there are so many potential factors as to why that could be the case, I want to tread lightly. It could be because of the backdrop. Maybe a certain backdrop (or batter’s eye) enables a hitter to see the ball more clearly. Or maybe the team just isn’t very good and their pitching staff walks a lot of players. That, indeed, seems like it could sway walk numbers.

The Dodgers begin a 10 game road trip in Milwaukee against the Brewers, a club who’s currently sitting atop the National League Central. Milwaukee’s Miller Park is fifth in baseball in average Ballpark Walk Factor at 1.116. So far so good. Then it’s on to Philadelphia to play at the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park. Citizens Bank is 21st at 0.959, which is worse than average, obviously. That number doesn’t bode well for the Dodgers. Lastly, SunTrust Park in Atlanta. The home of the Braves is eighth in baseball at 1.046.

In terms of drawing walks, those numbers mostly look promising. I understand if there was a certain hesitancy to rely on those Park Factors and numbers. I think Billy Beane might approve, but the common fan might be apprehensive. After all, runs are scored from home runs – immediately, which isn’t true of walks.

So, how do those parks stack up in terms of home runs?

Well, I’m glad you asked. Citizens Bank nearly tops the list in this regard, coming in fifth at 1.209, while Miller Park pulls up the rear in sixth at 1.197. SunTrust Park, however, falls well down the list, coming in at 29th at 0.693. But that’s okay because teams shouldn’t be expected to simply just dominate offensively while excluding pitching. In Philly and Milwaukee, Los Angeles will have to hammer the ball in hitters’ parks. Conversely, it might take a little more finesse in Atlanta to walk away with a split or series victory.

Two Offensive Players to Make a Difference

I have two players in mind, but I want to start with an honorable mention. The 2018 Dodgers have gotten some production from unexpected sources in 2018. The veteran Matt Kemp in his return to LA has been rather incredible. Despite slowing down over the last two weeks, Kemp still carries an OPS over .900 on the season (.925). He’s also launched 15 home runs while accumulating 55 RBIs.

First player: Chris Taylor. Taylor struggled to get things going offensively, but he’s turned it around in the month of June. He’s still not a superstar, but he’s the kind of pivotal player that can either make or (in his absence) break an otherwise talented team. I would suggest he’s the kind of guy to push a group over the edge. Whatever position he’s playing, he’s going to need to be productive with the bat.

Taylor maintained a 131 wRC+ throughout the month of June, with a wOBA of .360. Those are both numbers that tapered off towards the end of the month, but he’s shown flashes of his ability. A major hitch that perhaps stands between him and a triumphant return to help lead the Dodgers down the stretch? His strikeout percentage. Over the last two weeks, he struck out an obscene amount; so much so that it was almost offensive. With a strikeout percentage just over 36%, he’s going to need to manufacture more quality at-bats from here on and out.

Second player: this one seems so obvious it hurts. Max Muncy. The lefty-hitting utility fielder slugged 10 home runs en route to a 213 wRC+ for the month of June. For most people, he essentially came out of nowhere to be the most consistent/best player on the roster. There’s been so much written about him because he’s been so utterly good that there’s not much more for me to say. He’s been important to the Dodgers, and for them to win during the tough stretch in July, and to fight for the division at the end of the season, he will have to continue playing this way.

Two Pitchers to Make a Difference

First pitcher: Clayton Kershaw. This one seems like it goes without saying (I’m going to say it anyway). Kershaw is still the Dodgers’ ace, make no mistake about it, but it’s evident he isn’t the same as he once was. The natural path for a player as they age is to decline. As fans and analysts, we can’t exactly fault them for that. What is important is what they do during that decline.

The lanky lefty has been sidelined due to injury, and therefore only pitched eight innings in June. While Kershaw was healthy, he was absolutely a formidable pitcher. It was hard to tell because we had gotten so used to dominant Kershaw that anything but his peak seems like a letdown. He won’t ever be quite what he once was.

With all that said, Kershaw’s strikeout rate is over 25% over his 10 starts, while is walk rate is just over five percent. More than that, he’s carried a 3.14 SIERA to this point. He doesn’t currently qualify for league leaders, but if he did, then that 3.14 number would be fourth in the National League.

Another important note for Kershaw is his ability to induce swings and misses outside of the strike zone. His O-Swing% is down five percent from a year ago, but still high enough to be in the top 20 of starters in the National League.

Second pitcher: Ross Stripling. Stripling has been a force this season. Arguably, he’s been good enough to make the All-Star team but likely hasn’t gotten the number of reps that are traditionally seen of guys who make the squad. Through the month of June, he pitched 29 innings and logged an ERA of 2.48.

As long as Stripling continues to start games, it will be crucial that he keeps up his productive pace. This is especially true with the seemingly precarious nature of the rotation’s health (cough, Rich Hill).

The Most Important Factor

While the Dodgers need to focus on themselves during this tough stretch (arguably the toughest in baseball), it is still important what the other teams around the West are doing, namely the Diamondbacks, who appear to be Los Angeles’ chief competition.

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Even if the Dodgers scuffle some during such a difficult stretch, it just so happens that the Diamondbacks schedule appears to ramp up in July, as well. Arizona does play quite a few games against bottom feeder San Diego, and against the apparently average Colorado Rockies.

To balance things out, they are currently playing a series against the St. Louis Cardinals; they’ll also face off against another NL Central team, the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field for four games. Like the Dodgers, the Diamondbacks will also matchup against the Braves in Atlanta.

The Giants have also been surging recently, and have brought themselves within two and a half games of the division lead, and one game within the Dodgers. Like Los Angeles and Arizona, San Francisco faces a fairly tough road ahead, as well.

The Giants will meet the three top teams in the National League Central, most of which, however, are at AT&T Ballpark. The Mariners and Athletics are also sprinkled in there, the former of which has played very well and have placed themselves in competition for a playoff spot; the latter of which has played surprisingly well, with the potentiality to make some noise and disrupt the hopes of others.

Next: The strength of the Dodgers front office

In the end, there’s not a single team that can take their division without winning baseball games, so that’s ultimately the Dodgers job through this tough stretch, and throughout the rest of 2018. Time will tell how the standings will shake out, but it should be fun and interesting baseball.